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Time for Physicians to Take Action on Climate Change

MacPherson, Cheryl C. PhD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181a8556a
Letters to the Editor

Professor and chair, Bioethics Department, St George’s University School of Medicine, St George’s, Grenada; (

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To the Editor:

The medical profession, especially the U.S. medical profession, is overdue in recognizing climate change as a health problem and in formulating constructive responses. The impacts of climate change—including the reduced quality and availability of air, food, water, and living space—have clear and substantial health consequences. But I maintain that those impacts can be reduced without jeopardizing health, health care, or profits. For example, health care institutions use enormous amounts of energy and should adopt simple, cost-effective measures like investing in energy-saver bulbs, moderating ambient temperature settings, and recycling. New construction should incorporate architectural features that reduce carbon footprints and energy bills. Perhaps more difficult, but no less important, will be the steps needed to reduce the massive amounts of biomedical and other wastes, which release methane to the environment.

The profession and its journals have largely ignored the health consequences associated directly or indirectly with climate change. Only in November 2008 did the American Medical Association adopt policy to educate physicians about the health effects of climate change and encourage them to respond.1 It may be years before this policy has an impact.

But much can be done now. At a minimum, physicians and medical institutions should follow the lead of British medicine and reduce both personal and professional contributions to climate change. Physicians in Britain were among the first to frame climate change as a health problem. Their National Health Service recycles, leaves educational brochures in waiting rooms, and has significantly reduced its energy consumption. The British Medical Journal uses only paper that is recycled or that comes from renewable forests, has installed sensors that switch lights off when not in use, and mandates biodegradable packaging for its food services.

U.S. medicine should build on these models, using its unique knowledge, leverage, and resources to do so. Researchers can provide evidence of the need for and effectiveness of new approaches, while educators and others can teach and model responsiveness. I acknowledge that persuading physicians and medical administrators, researchers, educators, and students to combat climate change is challenging. But the enormity of the problem leaves no choice: Collectively and individually, medicine, including U.S. medicine, should negotiate means of reducing its own carbon footprint while assessing and preparing for the shifting disease burdens and health care needs associated with climate change.

Cheryl C. MacPherson, PhD

Professor and chair, Bioethics Department, St George’s University School of Medicine, St George’s, Grenada; (

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1 American Medical Association. Report 3 of the Council on Science and Public Health (CSAPH Report 3-1-08). Global Climate Change and Human Health. Chicago, Illinois: American Medical Association; 2008.
© 2009 Association of American Medical Colleges